Military leaders handed out decks of playing cards to U.S. troops in Iraq that featured the country's most wanted fugitives. The cards would help soldiers on the ground identify the enemy and bring them to justice, authorities believed.
Florida detectives liked the idea -- a deck of playing cards might help them solve cold case homicides. Instead of fugitives, the cards featured murder victims and were handed out to inmates.
Tommy Ray, a detective with the Florida Law Enforcement Team, helped launch the program. He was part of the Polk County, Fla., Cold Case Assessment Team that created the first deck of cold case cards in the nation.
The cards were given to inmates in the Polk County Jail. Two months later police got a response.
An inmate, seeing a picture of Thomas Grammar featured on the three of spades, remembered another person confessing to the 2004 murder. He didn't believe the story until he saw the card. The inmate spoke with detectives and the information led to the arrest of Grammar's killers.
Encouraged by their success, they made another set of cards and handed them out to 93,000 inmates in the state's 129 prisons. Three months later, Florida detectives solved two more homicides with information provided by inmates. The cards also drummed up 50 to 60 leads on other unsolved cases, Ray said.
"Jail is the Internet among criminals," he said. "When they're sitting in their cells or out in the courtyard all they have to do is talk and play cards. Some people think nothing of bragging about committing murder. Some want to clear their conscience and some aren't getting out so they have nothing to lose by talking about it."
There are many reasons a perpetrator may step forward to confess to a crime committed years ago, said Saul Kassin, a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"One possible motivation may be an attack of conscience," he said. Others may find religion and believe they need to confess as repentance, Kassin said.
But Kassin and others warn that putting faith in jailhouse snitches is risky. Some are pathological liars who have a vested interested in stepping forward under the pretense of helping law enforcement, said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University and author of "Serial Killers and Sadistic Murders."
"Based on the testimony of a pathological liar an innocent person could be convicted," he said.
Homicides that end up as cold cases generally have been committed by strangers and there is little physical evidence, Levin said. New advances in technology, such as genetic analysis, may help, but generally detectives must wait for a remorseful killer to confess or a partner in crime to step forward, Levin said.
Cold case cards are a gamble, Levin said.
"I can understand why law enforcement would try this kind of approach but police also have to be aware they may come across unreliable, misleading and irrelevant information," he said.
That concern is addressed by how the cards are put together, Ray said. The cards don't provide a lot of details about the crime and don't include key information that only the killer would know, he said.
"Any homicide detective worth his salt will be able to see through the lies in a second," Ray said.
Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or email@example.com.
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